Making the Garden

by Christopher Alexander

It has taken me almost fifty years to understand fully that there is a necessary connection between God and architecture, and that this connection is, in part, empirically verifiable. Further, I have come to the view that the sacredness of the physical world—and the potential of the physical world for sacredness—provides a powerful and surprising path towards understanding the existence of God, whatever God may be, as a necessary part of the reality of the universe. If we approach certain empirical questions about architecture in a proper manner, we will come to see God.

Only in the last twenty years has my understanding of this connection taken a definite form, and it continues to develop every day. It has led me to experience explicit visions of God, and to understand, in some very small measure, what kind of entity God may be. It has also given me a way of talking about the divine in concrete, physical terms that everybody can understand.

There can be little doubt that the idea of God, as brought forth from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has ­slowly become tired . . . to such an extent that it has difficulty fitting into everyday twenty-first-century discourse. As it stands, it is almost embarrassing to many people, in many walks of life. The question is: Can we find a way to mobilize, afresh, the force of what was once called God, as a way of helping us to recreate the beauty of the Earth?

The view put forth here does not leave our contemporary, physical view of the universe untouched. Indeed, it hints at a conception which must utterly transform our conception of ourselves and our place in the universe. It shows us, in a new fashion, a glimpse of a beauty and majesty in the smallest details of human existence.

All this comes from the work of paying attention to the Earth, its land and rocks and trees, its buildings, the people and ants and birds and creatures all together, and the blades of grass. It comes from realizing that the task of making and remaking the Earth—that which we sometimes call architecture—is at the core of any commonsense understanding of the divine.

In 1956, I began for the first time, consciously, to try to find out what architecture is. I had received a degree in mathematics, at Trinity College, Cambridge, and, as I had always intended, began a second degree, this time in architecture, also at Trinity. As I took in what I was being taught, I felt that the then-prevailing idea of architecture was rootless and arbitrary, mainly governed by styles and pointless quirks of style, and that what architects typically said about it was peculiar, often meaningless and egocentric. In 1958, as early as I could after completing my architecture degree, I left to go to the United States, to do a Ph.D. in architecture at Harvard. That was the moment when I first got my feet on the ground, and began trying to define the nature of architecture from first principles.

To have something solid that I could be sure of, I started by examining the smallest particles of functional effect that I could discern in buildings, paying attention to small and sometimes barely significant aspects of the ways that buildings affect people. My purpose in doing this was to focus on the smallest particles of fact that I could be certain of: something that was extraordinarily difficult given the porridge of mush that then passed for architectural theory. In those early years, my studies were based on the most ordinary, miniscule observations about usefulness and the effect of buildings on the people who lived in them, always keeping the observations modest, ­reliable, and detailed—small enough and solid enough that I could be sure that they were true.

At first I included very small particulars of functional effect of any kind that made a practical difference to daily life . . . a shelf beside the door where one could put a packet down while searching for one’s keys, for instance, or the possibility of a sunbeam coming into a room and falling on the floor.

I soon realized that some of these details were very much more significant than others. Those like the first (the shelf) tended to be pedestrian, even though useful; while those like the second (the sunbeam) were more uplifting, and clearly mattered more in some obvious but profound sense. They had a greater impact on people’s mental and emotional health. And they had more to do with beauty. So I began to focus on those miniscule points that mattered more, in the sense of the second example. Gradually, then, I was able to see how buildings support human ­well-being—not so much mechanical or material well-­being, but rather the emotional well-being that makes a person feel comfortable in himself. And as I studied these small effects carefully, gradually I was led to a conception of the wholeness and wellness that might, under ideal circumstances, arise between buildings and human beings.

Starting with these humble and detailed pictures of what seemed to matter in a building, for fifty years I have struggled to provide a basis for architecture that can sustain human feeling and the human spirit. I made an effort to penetrate the logic of architecture, and the logic of architectural value, in the hope that I could alter the devastating effect on human beings and on human society of what had become known as “modern” architecture. I hoped to replace this faceless thing with an idea and practice of architecture that would help us sustain the sanctity of life, both in our hearts and in society.